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O Muilleoir takes first steps in bid to legalise same-sex marriage

By Noel McAdam

Published 23/06/2016

Hopeful: Mairtin O Muilleoir
Hopeful: Mairtin O Muilleoir

Stormont officials have been asked to begin work on legislation to introduce same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

But Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir, who has initiated the exercise, admitted he has some way to go to gain the support of other Assembly parties.

The Assembly has rejected the proposal five times, although the most recent debate saw a knife-edge majority in favour of the legislative change.

The province remains the only region of the United Kingdom without legal provision for same-sex marriages.

Campaigners nonetheless claimed a major step forward even though the last Assembly vote was torpedoed by the DUP use of Assembly rules.

In the most recent debate, a total of 53 MLAs voted for a first joint Sinn Fein/SDLP motion asking the Executive to initiate legislation, with 52 against.

But the motion was then blocked by the DUP using the 'petition of concern' mechanism, which means a motion must secure a majority of both unionists and nationalists.

Now, in a written Assembly answer, Sinn Fein Minister O Muilleoir revealed he has asked officials to begin work on legislation which he believes could be passed during the current Assembly term.

The Finance Minister, whose department has responsibility for the registration of marriages, said he wanted his officials to "do the groundwork now" so that his department is "able to move swiftly towards introduction".

In response to a question from Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, the South Belfast MLA said he has also asked his officials to initiate discussions with other departments.

Mr O Muilleoir said he hoped the Assembly would legislate on the matter as soon as possible but also acknowledged he has "a little way to go" in securing sufficient support to get the measure through.

Demands have been increasing for a future 'free vote' on the issue and there have also been suggestions a private member's Bill could be introduced.

New Justice Minister Claire Sugden also reaffirmed her support for same-sex marriage this week and said that she hoped to discuss the issue with other Executive Ministers in the near future.

In its election manifesto for the new Assembly, however, the DUP said it had "stood by its commitment to family values and marriage and will continue to do so".

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